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Making the Transition

The Transition: Differences Between High School and College

The differences between the accommodation process in high school and college can be initially unsettling to those who are used to the secondary school environment. These differences are largely related to the distinct intentions of the laws that govern the provision of accommodations in the post-secondary and secondary settings. Some of these distinctions are detailed below; however, incoming students will find that the major theme behind them is a greater emphasis on personal responsibility and self-advocacy. While this is believed to be an important part of the developmental process for college students, it can lead to difficulties for students who are used to having the bulk of the procedures related to accommodations handled for them by someone else on their behalf.

Below are are some websites and resources that have additional information about transitioning from a student with a disability in high school to a student with a disability in a college or university setting.

Going to College provides video clips, activities, and resources that can help students get a head start in planning for college. Video interviews with college students with disabilities offer a way to hear firsthand from students with disabilities who have been successful. Modules include activities that will help students explore more about themselves, learn what to expect from college, and equip them with important considerations and tasks to complete when planning for college.

Making College Affordable: A Guide for Students with Disabilities is a complete guide to college financing for students with disabilities. Find expert advice on loans, grants and scholarships specifically for students with disabilities, as well as resources to help with the job search after graduation.

Higher Education for Students with Disabilities; Rights, Resources and Accredited Online Schools This guide provides an overview of rights and responsibilities of students with disabilities in higher education and explains how these might be different from the K-12 setting.

Transition Year is a roadmap to emotional health and wellness at college. Transition Year offers resources and advice tailored to students and parents to assist them in navigating the transition to college as a student with a psychological disability.

Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education. This  information is provided by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U. S. Department of Education to explain the rights and responsibilities of students with disabilities who are preparing to attend postsecondary schools. This site also explains the obligations of a postsecondary school to provide academic adjustments, including auxiliary aids and services, to ensure the school does not discriminate on the basis of disability.

College Resources for Students with Disabilities Prospective college students with disabilities will find that many campuses are equipped with offices and services that address accessibility, accommodation, and assistive technology for a diverse range of needs. Student services offices and disability coordinators work to make campuses inclusive environments through specialized advocacy, support, and academic services.

Winning: A College Guide for Students with Disabilities  This guide provides information about the differences between accommodations in high school and universities and includes resources about students’ rights, scholarships, and disability services offices.


Major Differences Between High School and College

The Intent of the Law

The following laws govern the accommodation process in the secondary (high school) and postsecondary (college) environment. (Adapted from Oklahoma City College Disability Services Handbook.)

High School College/University
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)      Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act      Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)      Civil Rights Restoration Act
Civil Rights Restoration Act

IDEA is a revision of PL 94-142 (Education for all Handicapped Children), which legislated funding for special education services in the least restrictive environments. Both entitle children with disabilities to a free and appropriate education that allows for achievement. This puts the onus on the school system to do several things:

  1. identify children with special needs
  2. evaluate children to determine needs and whether or not there is a disability
  3. plan educational services to allow for achievement

All of these are provided at the school district’s expense.

In contrast, the intent of Section 504 and the ADA at the post-secondary level is to ensure equal access to individuals with disabilities who are otherwise qualified to meet the essential demands of the program. Whereas IDEA includes a list of specific disabilities that are eligible for services, 504/ADA defines disabilities in more general terms. Specifically, a disability is defined as a substantial impairment in a major life activity (including learning and working) and the laws protect individuals who are:

  1. currently substantially limited
  2. have a history of being substantially limited and
  3. who are regarded as substantially limited even though no such limitation exists

These latter two categories primarily relate to the protection of these individuals from discrimination (i.e., you cannot discriminate against someone who has a history of a disability or who you perceive as disabled). In the post-secondary environment, colleges and universities are responsible for providing equal access to students who meet this definition of a disability and protecting them from discrimination. Colleges and universities are NOT responsible for identifying or evaluating students, and the goal of accommodation is to ensure access versus academic success.

Based on these different intentions, there are several concrete differences that can be summarized as follows:


In the postsecondary environment, it is the students’ responsibility to register with the office responsible for providing accommodations and to make specific accommodation requests. Unlike high school, colleges and universities are not responsible for identifying students with disabilities.


Evaluation of students with perceived disabilities is not the responsibility of postsecondary institutions. Students have the responsibility to present documentation of their condition(s) for consideration of accommodations. The evaluations conducted are performed at the student’s expense.


Postsecondary institutions have the right to ask for current and comprehensive documentation that clearly details:

  1. the diagnosis
  2. the functional limitations and
  3. the need for accommodations

The 504 plan or IEP that was developed in high school may not be sufficient. In addition, the documentation presented must clearly detail a student’s substantial limitations. Merely having a diagnosis (e.g., learning disability, ADHD) does not necessitate accommodations. Successful compensation belies a disability according to the definition provided by ADA (Gordon & Keiser, 1998). Similarly, the use of successful mitigating measures (e.g., medication, corrective lenses in the case of a vision impairment) that eliminate the functional impairment means that accommodations are not appropriate. In addition, it is important to note that case law surrounding the ADA has typically revolved around the “average person standard.” In other words, learning differences or “relative weaknesses” compared to one’s abilities in other areas are not necessarily disabling.

Reasonable Accommodations

It is important to note that the ADA is a civil rights act, and does not necessarily entitle an individual to accommodations. Accommodations are designed to ensure equal access and “level the playing field” versus guarantee academic success. Specific examples of this in the postsecondary environment include building a ramp so that a student in a wheelchair can get into a building, providing an interpreter for a deaf student to allow him/her to understand the material being presented, and giving extra test-taking time to a student with a learning disability to make sure that he/she has sufficient time to read an exam. In contrast, accommodations would not be provided to ensure that a student gets a certain grade on an exam.


In high school, parents and/or guardians are often considered the primary advocates, although ideally students take on a growing responsibility for this role. In college, students must be able to communicate their needs and request services. While parents can certainly voice their concerns about a student, the accommodation request must come from the student. SSD provides students with resources to improve their self-advocacy skill in our Advocacy and Support section of our website.

This article was compiled from several sources including:

  • Gordon, M., & Keiser, S.L. (Eds.). (1998). Accommodations in higher education under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): A no-nonsense guide for clinicians, educators, administrators, and lawyers. New York: Guilford.
  • McVey, K. (unpublished manuscript). Students with disabilities: The differences in legal rights and responsibilities in secondary and postsecondary education.
  • Oklahoma Community College Disability Services Handbook (n.d.), February 2002.

The interested reader is referred to these resources for more complete information.